Presenting the Great REDD Perpetual Motion Machine

Recently, I set out the argument that REDD is the sort of concept that emerges from a discussion in a pub or bar, and thus has similar features to the ‘Perpetual Motion’ machine that has captivated dreamers and beer drinkers for hundreds of years. Its grandiose pretensions baffle the unwary sceptic, who finds their criticism dismissed as defeatism and small-mindedness.

The best that can be said about REDD is that it has stimulated a discussion about forest economics. Huge reports, massive Official Development Assistance-funded projects and plenty of work for consultants (full disclosure: I am one of those consultants). In this article I will discuss how this quest for the ultimate development project, whilst charming at the level of an abstract chat in the pub, is becoming a massive distraction, and is pulling resources away from the boring but important work that really matters.

The scale and complexity of REDD reflects the arrogance of what economics professor and co-director of the Development Research Institute Bill Easterly calls ‘the planners’, believing they can build a plan that will simultaneously meet conservation goals with (carbon) markets, livelihood goals with cash transfers, governance improvement with incentives and thus reduce GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.

The only reason this fallacy has not been exposed, is that it contains something for everyone: conservationists get their high fences and enforcement, neo-liberals perceive the market’s invisible hand, target countries get access to huge pots of grant aid to cover the cost of stuff they should be doing anyway.

One sign that this is an experiment that has gone badly wrong, is the way REDD+ has grown from the relatively svelte Avoided Deforestation to RED, REDD+, REDD++ until it has become a teetering pile of clamps, test tubes, rubber hoses and rubber bands, like a Heath Robinson (or for Americans, Rube Goldberg) contraption — a complex machine designed to perform a simple task. This is a consequence of its attempt to embrace all constituencies, and thus solve everyone’s pet problems. This is akin to designing our Perpetual Motion machine so that it can not only generate free energy, but also knock up a decent omelette while collecting swallow’s eggs.

At its heart, the quest for Perpetual Motion is based on the belief that the universe is so benign that it has provided us a backdoor to limitless energy and thus a solution to all the world’s woes. REDD+ is from the same utopian mindset, one that maintains that human society can be understood from high above, and is susceptible to detailed and resolute planning.

REDD+ is a massive planning machine wrought by those who believe that ‘planning works’, and more planning works even better.

To be credible, the REDD+ enthusiasts emphasise the market aspect of the scheme, as if this nod to modern liberal sensitivities will distract us from the system of pulleys and levers that is doing the real work here.

But our fellow drinkers in the pub will not be misled. REDD+ is a massive planning machine. It is wrought by those who believe that PLANNING WORKS, and more planning works even better. They ignore how natural landscapes have been shaped by society for millennia, shifting with the inscrutable and overlapping tides of conquest, colonisation, urbanisation, beautification and commodification. They wish to replace this natural immanent process of unfolding history with their own device, and from now on landscapes will behave as they dictate.

This fetish for planning would be bad enough if we all agreed on the goals and the means. That would merely be delusional and reductionist, but at least we would all fail together as friends.

But the truth is we are not friends. All large development projects are the work of strangers, some of them with foreign notions about what is best for the poor people of the forest. We have different goals, and very different ideas of how to achieve them. This is one of the reasons why big development projects very rarely meet their goals.

My fellow drinkers, if they have not wandered off to the billiard table by now, may point out that perhaps I am being too demanding of REDD. Am I not making the ‘best’ the enemy of the good? (A cliché I hear rather frequently in REDD conferences). Perhaps mega-planning will work this time. Maybe countries with weak governance will make miraculous improvements. Markets, those arbiters of equilibria, will allocate capital with cool efficiency with never a bubble nor a scintilla of greed.

OK, let us allow for these conditions, just as we will give the Perpetual Motionist his absence of entropy and friction. As a CIFOR article pointed out: ‘even a flawed REDD+ is better than no finance for conservation at all’. This gives us our baseline for analysis: is REDD+ really better than nothing?

I believe a moment’s reflection will tell us that where the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable people are at stake, a flawed plan is indeed probably worse than nothing. It misallocates resources, creates a distraction from the real issues and its offset mechanism may even increase GHG emissions rather than reduce them. Its complexity and inherent uncertainty requires expensive accoutrements (monitoring, reporting and verification — MRV), which in turn increases transaction cost and thus reduces the amount available for forest communities to invest in their own economic development.

Where REDD+ is concerned, ‘transaction cost’ is a polite way of describing money taken by people other than the intended beneficiaries.

But the poor people are not going to go away, and the social challenges to top-down forest policymaking cannot be wished into oblivion by stakeholder analysis and decorative ‘Free Prior and Informed Consent’ baubles.

Forest transition is a social process, and if countries wish to manipulate this transition then they need to start with the poor, introduce rights, keep rapacious investors at bay and build rural economies that enable marginalised and remote communities.

Experience with emissions control (e.g., NoX in California) has shown that “if you don’t attend to the interests of the poor in an efficient way, you’ll just end up attending to those interests in a less efficient way” [Robert Frank]. The forest transition is a social process, and if countries wish to manipulate this transition then they need to start with the poor, introduce rights, keep rapacious investors at bay, and build rural economies that enable marginalised and remote communities to get a couple of steps ahead of the larger development process and claim their stake in the game.

Sweden realised this at the beginning of the 20th century, and transformed one of the poorest rural societies in Europe into one of the most prosperous, while doubling the size of the standing forest.

Each country will have a different strategy, but if they proceed from the assumption of local control and diverse rural economies, then they will not be going too far wrong. Of course it will not always work, it will sometimes be messy, and we are still going to lose forest cover in some places. But it will be a natural process of development, taking place at the human scale.

Not very interesting for the titans who attend the COP meetings in Valhalla, who may need to find other problems to which they can apply their vast intellects.

Consider, for the last time I promise, our drinking companion’s Perpetual Motion machine. One of the early examples of this was the ‘Water Screw’ designed by Robert Fludd in 1618. It was a response to the perceived problem of energy scarcity that prevailed in the pre-industrial age, where wood was the primary energy source, and European forests were being rapidly denuded. The machine never worked, obviously. But imagine if a global committee had decided in the 17th century that this kind of machine was the answer to poverty and deforestation? Instead of inventing the steam engine, engineers such as Savery and Newcomen would have frittered away their days in search of the impossible.

We may never have had an industrial revolution (“and a good thing too” I hear the green lobby exclaim), but we may also have missed out on an extraordinary period of human flourishing. That is the kind of counterfactual speculation that is ideal for the pub.

In the meantime, we are still stuck with REDD, and we may need to sober up soon. There is a possibility that we are so intent on proving to each other how REDD+ could work, that we fail to ask why on earth it ever could work. The conditions required for it to work are so demanding and the social, political and economic rules it needs to break seem so immovable that perhaps it should remain a thought experiment over a beer.

• ♦ •

For related commentary from this author, Dominic Elson, watch the Program for Forests (PROFOR) video: Shifting to a people-centered model for investing in natural capital.

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Presenting the Great REDD Perpetual Motion Machine by Dominic Elson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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Join the Discussion

  • Lars-Gunnar Blomkvist

    While still waiting for Paris

    What is the way out says Mr Lazarus Mbaya in Linkedin. Thousands of persons are working on the
    answer. Perhaps the first step must be to find the right questions – I think that has not been done yet.

    A few titles of reports or comments to reports that have appeared during the past month
    or so in the Linkedin REDD+ this discussion group:

    Can REDD+ shift the tide against elite capture of forest benefits: probably not, CIFOR Forest News Blog 25 Aug 2015

    Political Economy of Fire and Haze, CIFOR Forests News Blog 26 Aug 2015

    Deforestation: Area the Size of India to be cleared by 2050. Center for Global Development.

    FAO thinks (but Chris Lang doubts) that the rate of deforestation is falling

    Tree loss slows, but covers area twice size of Portugal in 2014 (study published by WRI)

    Increasing human dominance of tropical forests (Tropical forests will still exist in 2100 – but they will be a sorry sight)

    Indonesia to “punish” firms over fires, BBC news 22 Sept 2015 commenting on relentless fires and thick haze spreading to
    neighbor countries.

    All reports seem to point in a discouraging direction.

    Meanwhile another group of persons is holding meetings, drawing up plans, including preparing for the coming Paris meeting. (OK, not entirely “another”, some of these persons must also be involved in the production of the mentioned reports.)

    But there does seem to be a disconnect.

    We must assume that the reports listed will be discussed in the meetings, but whatever is being said in meetings, little seems to trickle down into the forests.
    “Deforestation rate going down”. Not this year, not in Indonesia at least. (It is not yet possible to assess the full extent of damage done by the still on-going fires.) Thousands work and work on the answer, while Business As Usual goes on in the forest, or Landscapes as
    we should say now, and one comes to think: “Never have so many had so many to thank for so little”,

    Mind you, we have well-worded aims to look at! We have UN’s newly approved 17 Sustainable Development Goals – and we have the Pope’s Laudato Si to take the most visible.
    It is difficult to disagree with the noble goals. Now, what needs to be done?

    The Linkedin REDD+ network is said to have 3723 members. I am one. Michelle Desilets, for example, is a diligent commentator, sharing news such as the publication of reports like the ones listed (Madame, I tip my hat!) There are other persons also sending in
    tips, great, thanks! I reacted when I saw the report on predicted forest status in 2100. Rather disturbing I thought. Linkedin is not a discussion forum, its raison d’être is another, we know. When one or two out of 3723 members comment, that seems as disturbing as the forest-loss reports themselves. Has “forest management” become an idea-impaired discipline? Or, have foresters given up!!!